The Call of the Wild



Iguess the omens are good from the out­set. Mid­way en route from Syd­ney to Perth the pilot comes over the loud­speaker and an­nounces his name is Cap­tain Bar­rel – not a word of a lie.

Pho­tog­ra­pher Rus­sell Ord is there to col­lect me at the air­port with a ski hitched to the back of his ride. Russ's videog­ra­pher part­ner, quick­draw Dar­ren McCagh, is rid­ing shot­gun and WA prodigy Ja­cob Will­cox is in the back. Four­teen hours of long haul driv­ing lay between us and Gnar­aloo, where a six to eight foot swell is sched­uled to co­in­cide with our ar­rival. We are par­tic­i­pants in the great mi­gra­tion north which surfers from the west make ev­ery year through au­tumn and win­ter. Once the thick In­dian Ocean south swells col­lide with the desert-fringed waves of Nin­ga­loo reef, the West Aus­tralians aban­don their homes, their café-made cof­fees and reg­u­lar com­forts for a dusty camp­ing ground up north – each year they an­swer the call of the wild.

Any Gnar­aloo ex­pe­ri­ence can­not be di­vorced from the epic drive required to reach the wave oa­sis in the desert. It's the nec­es­sary suf­fer­ing one must en­dure be­fore catch­ing a bar­rel that may break your board and your body on first at­tempt. On the long, straight veins of bi­tu­men, which cut through WA, a rare bond is formed between the pas­sen­gers. Sur­rounded by a lu­nar land­scape they be­come as­tro­nauts of the high­way and talk­ing story is one of the only ways to stay sane.

I ask Ja­cob about what it was like to beat Kelly Slater in round one of the Rip Curl Pro Por­tu­gal last year. How did the 11-time world champ re­act when his chances of a 12th ti­tle were made that lit­tle bit harder by a skinny 16-year-old surf­ing WCT heats between home­work as­sign­ments? "I don't think he was very happy," sug­gests Ja­cob with a hint of dead­pan hu­mour. Wil­cox has a wil­i­ness about him. He's not shy but speaks with an econ­omy of lan­guage that im­plies an in­tol­er­ance for any kind of bull­shit. His de­meanour brings to mind Clint East­wood in the clas­sic western Pale Rider.

Ja­cob, how­ever, is wor­ried about an­other movie. In his fi­nal year of high school he is study­ing the mod­ern clas­sic Amer­i­can Beauty and has aban­doned an un­com­pleted as­sign­ment to come on this trip. It seems cu­ri­ous that Ja­cob has his head full of a movie about screwed up subur­ban Amer­ica while we are tear­ing through the dusty ex­panses of WA. The two set­tings could not have been any fur­ther apart. "My mum's freak­ing be­cause I failed an English exam," he sug­gests. While many

of his young, pro surf­ing peers have aban­doned their ed­u­ca­tion, Ja­cob is de­ter­mined to grad­u­ate. "I want to say that I fin­ished school," he states sin­cerely, point­ing out that com­plet­ing high school was some­thing Kelly did. When not study­ing or surf­ing, Ja­cob in­di­cates he en­joys box­ing train­ing and spar­ring with 'Brooksy', a Mar­garet River lo­cal who's set up a ring in his home and coaches ev­ery­one from lo­cal kids to hard-hit­ting mums. Between Russ and Ja­cob I'm given a run­down on the box­ing prow­ess of al­most ev­ery­one in Mar­garet River who's pulled on a pair of gloves.

On the road north col­li­sions with big roos and stray cat­tle are a con­stant threat. The high­way is pe­ri­od­i­cally stained with blood­ied road­kill and the driver must be vig­i­lant to avoid a fau­nal homi­cide. When we come up along­side a small car that is bereft of a bull bar the boys laugh scorn­fully. "I wouldn't like to be do­ing the trip in that," sug­gests Ja­cob who at 17 al­ready has a decade of Gnar­aloo road trips to his name.

We by­pass a cou­ple of mas­sive cows that lie on their backs with their hooves ob­scenely up­turned, and won­der what be­came of the ve­hi­cle that skit­tled them. Fur­ther along the road we slow down and stare into the ruth­less eyes of a gi­ant ea­gle, its beak bloody with the en­trails of the evis­cer­ated roo upon which it is perched. The ea­gle is the big­gest bird of prey I have ever laid eyes on and seems to sig­nify our en­try into a land that is as in­hos­pitable as it is starkly beau­ti­ful. A kill or be killed kind of place.

The sto­ries flow as we chew through the miles. For en­ter­tain­ment value pho­tog Russ Ord's tales are hard to beat. He tells us how in Amer­ica he be­came a re­luc­tant overnight star when he res­cued a drown­ing surfer at Mav­er­icks. Russ was tak­ing pho­tos when a first-timer at Mav's was caught by a sneaker set and thrown back­wards with a pitch­ing lip. By the time Russ got to him he was near-dead. He hauled the guy on to his ski and trans­ported him back to land, where he was re­vived. The US me­dia went crazy for the hum­ble, good-na­tured Aussie. There were limo rides and TV re­quests for the fire­man/pho­tog­ra­pher, who sug­gested he was sim­ply act­ing as he would if he were on the job and res­cu­ing some­one from a blaze. So over­whelmed with the at­ten­tion was Russ that he es­caped back to Aus­tralia where a me­dia frenzy again awaited him at Perth air­port.

Per­haps more uniquely Aus­tralian is Russ's anec­dote about his days as a pro­fes­sional rugby league-play­ing fire­man. Young Russ found him­self as the re­luc­tant cover boy for the famed Men of the Fire Brigade cal­en­dar. When or­gan­is­ers in­sisted he par­take in a cat­walk pa­rade to pro­mote the cal­en­dar he got roar­ing drunk to cope with the em­bar­rass­ment. De­spite the vi­o­lent han­gover, the very next day he man­aged to kick the win­ning field goal in the last minute of his grand fi­nal.


When we roll in to the camp­site late on a Tues­day af­ter­noon, a stiff on­shore breeze whips at the ocean's sur­face and the red dust. We are met by Matt and Shaun Man­ners. Shaun is an­other of WA's emerg­ing tal­ents and at the time of our ar­rival he and Ja­cob have claimed one con­test apiece in the lo­cal state rounds. His fa­ther Matt is a re­spected surfer and shaper who has been com­ing north since the '80s. Matt and Shaun have parked their car­a­van at the base of a sand dune on top of which is perched an aban­doned couch. On a clear day you can sit on the weath­ered lounge and stare down to­wards the Gnar­aloo lineup in the dis­tance – the per­fect desert throne.

As Ja­cob sets up his swag, a tow­er­ing fig­ure with a goofy smile wan­ders past the camp­site. Dawbs is on his pe­ri­odic break from his min­ing gig and has bolted north for the swell. "Oh, how many grom­mets does it take to put up a swag?" jokes Dawbs, as Shaun helps Ja­cob with his elab­o­rate mini-tent. "You don't have to worry about peg­ging them down if you've got the big 100kg frame like me," chuck­les Dawbs. Dawbs is a familiar fig­ure around the camp and back in Mar­garet River. There are not many places in the world where you can drive 14 hours north to a camp­ground and find that most of the peo­ple there are friends from back home. In Europe you would be three coun­tries and as many lan­guages away from where you started, but in WA, such are the mi­gra­tory pat­terns of the Mar­garet River folk, it some­how feels like you have just gone up the road.


The desert air is still full of bite as we load up the trucks and drive the short dis­tance to the car park op­po­site the tomb­stones sec­tion of the reef. As fore­cast the wind has swung off­shore over night and the first lines of the new swell are grip­ping the reef. What strikes you most about Gnar­aloo as you look at it from front on is how quickly it shifts en­ergy down the reef. The bar­rels look un­make­able but it seems I am about to be proven wrong.

Ja­cob and Shaun waste lit­tle time pad­dling out across the la­goon. The pad­dle is easy enough un­til you reach the edge of the la­goon where there is no de­fined gap in the reef and you have to run the gaunt­let with the sets that im­plode un­pre­dictably in front of you. The reef is pep­pered with coral heads that are like hid­den mines – you never know when you are go­ing to be hit by one. How­ever, it's not so much the shal­low­ness that you worry about but the power. Gnar­aloo has been known to break fe­murs and snap col­lar­bones.

“He roams the reef like a hunter in search of prey”

Within min­utes of reach­ing the lineup, Ja­cob is bend­ing his mal­leable frame into a se­ries of bar­rels. He's been surf­ing here since he was six and spent half a year in the camp when he was only nine. At 17 he is a Gnar­aloo vet­eran and his ex­pe­ri­ence shows. He roams the reef like a hunter in search of prey, sling-shot­ting into deep run­ners, drag­ging his fingers across the roof of stand-up pits and art­fully string­ing to­gether dou­ble bar­rel rides. He con­sis­tently takes off 20 yards deeper than the morn­ing pack and the crowd is in awe of his ap­proach.

When the first solid six-footer rolls through, Shaun Man­ners hurls him­self over the lip on his back­hand. From the com­fort of the shoul­der, it's like watch­ing a mouse get chased off a bal­cony by a cat. Some­how he gets to the bot­tom but by the time he lands he's starved of speed and can't get around the sec­tion. "He usu­ally pulls back on ones like that, " sug­gests Ja­cob, more than a lit­tle im­pressed with the ef­fort

"It's pretty good watch­ing th­ese young grom­mets have a go," sug­gests one beam­ing punter who pad­dles past me.

Shaun's dad Matt is also one of the stand­outs, hack­ing huge turns off ver­ti­cal sec­tions and stron­garm­ing his way through gur­gling pits. It's clearly ap­par­ent where the tal­ent comes from.


The swell builds as the day pro­gresses. At eight feet Gnar­aloo is one of the most de­mand­ing waves on the planet. There is no easy en­try point and just pad­dling in is like try­ing to jump on a de­railed train. The long, coil­ing faces ap­pear to be clean but they're of­ten booby-trapped with kinks and bumps, which will buck you off un­mer­ci­fully. It's not un­com­mon to hurl your­self over the ledge only to find an­other shelf of wa­ter three feet be­low you. A good ride of­ten has less to do with en­joy­ing per­fec­tion than it does with the sat­is­fac­tion that comes from sur­viv­ing one of na­ture's great ob­sta­cle cour­ses.

Will­cox seems to thrive on the chal­lenge and gets bar­relled so of­ten that it's pos­si­ble to an­a­lyse his tube rid­ing mas­tery. His tran­si­tion from ly­ing prone on his board to be­ing per­fectly bal­anced in a stand­ing po­si­tion is light­ning quick, how­ever he never looks rushed. The move­ment is more fluid than a bird tak­ing flight – the sort of qual­ity Lopez pos­sessed. Some peo­ple earn their tube props by fear­lessly hurl­ing them­selves over ledges ir­re­spec­tive of abil­ity. Ja­cob is sim­ply more skil­ful, one for whom bar­rel rid­ing is more of art form than a test of bravado.

Dino Adrian, Jar­rah Tut­ton and Joel Ash­p­land all ap­pear for the lunch time pulse. The off­shore kicks in, the sun comes out and the gap­ing bar­rels turn a brighter shade of blue. The al­lur­ing aqua tint plays a cruel trick on the mind mak­ing the waves look invit­ing enough to make you think the bar­rels are more eas­ily make­able.

By the time Shaun and Ja­cob come in from their first ses­sion, the carpark is full. It's a desert drive-in with non-stop en­ter­tain­ment – warp­ing eight foot bar­rels, heroic rides and heavy wipe­outs. The best part is you can pad­dle out and be­come a star in the show or a bit player any time you like. Like most world-class waves Gnar­aloo has its devo­tees, un­der­ground tube hounds who charge fear­lessly with­out the in­cen­tive of spon­sor­ship dol­lars. As we watch from the carpark between ses­sions Mar­garet River's Joel Aspland freefalls over the ledge on his back­hand and sur­vives the buck­les to score a magic ride that has the carpark crowd cheer­ing. Not long af­ter an un­known goofy footer with a heavy beard weaves his brightly coloured lance through a cou­ple of col­laps­ing tun­nels and non­cha­lantly kicks out.

In the pop­u­lated east­ern states surfers know how to ne­go­ti­ate busy line­ups, mean­while in the North West even the av­er­age surfer can han­dle a heavy bar­rel.


By night at the camp one can find con­tent­ment enough in easy con­ver­sa­tion and the spec­tac­u­lar ce­les­tial view. As we sit around and stare at the stars, Matt re­flects on his first trip up here in the 1983 with Dave Ma­cauley and a crew of in­trepid WA charg­ers. " There was no four­wheel drive. We drove a Kingswood sedan up here and let the tyres down to han­dle the tracks… You weren't al­lowed to camp at Gnar­aloo back then so we went to the Bluff… I re­mem­ber go­ing fish­ing with a hook at­tached to the end of a chain and al­most be­ing dragged in to the wa­ter by a shark," he laughs. The way Matt re­mem­bers it, the epic if not calami­tous trip had a defin­ing con­clu­sion. "We went down to do the dishes on the rocks by the Bluff and they got washed away by a wave and that was kind of the end of it." While Matt is rem­i­nisc­ing about his trips up north, Daz is run­ning around in the dark with his cam­era try­ing to cap­ture the night sky with a cou­ple of slow ex­po­sure tricks and Russ, the for­mer rugby league pro­fes­sional, is bel­low­ing out up­dates on the State of Ori­gin match with the help of his ra­dio. In the still of the desert night ev­ery site and ev­ery sound is just that lit­tle bit more vivid. Mean­while Ja­cob and Shaun are al­ready asleep, their bod­ies lan­guid with over-ex­er­cise, their minds full of the bar­rels they'd rid­den and the ones they might ride the next day.

We drove a Kingswood sedan up here and let the tyres down to han­dle the tracks… I re­mem­ber go­ing fish­ing with a hook at­tached to the end of a chain and al­most be­ing dragged in to the wa­ter by a shark



The fol­low­ing morn­ing the swell sub­sides marginally but loses none of its fre­netic grind along the reef. If any­thing it's a lit­tle cleaner. Jay Davies is peer­ing in­tently seaward when we ar­rive at the carpark look­out. The hulk­ish nat­u­ral footer has tweaked a knee and is out of the wa­ter. Al­though dis­ap­pointed to be miss­ing out on the fun he seems con­tent enough to dis­tract him­self with other pur­suits. "I came up with my chick. She likes eat­ing fish and I like fish­ing so it's all good," he states mat­ter-of-factly. At Gnar­aloo, the sec­ond most-asked ques­tion af­ter, "What are you rid­ing?" is "What tackle are you us­ing on your line?" With mack­erel, tuna and an in­fi­nite num­ber of other blue rib­bon species up for grabs, fish­ing is a big part of the North West ex­pe­ri­ence. So abun­dant is the sup­ply of fish that re­stric­tions on catch loads had to be in­tro­duced. Ap­par­ently keen an­glers had been driv­ing north equipped with gi­ant re­frig­er­a­tion units and catch­ing all the fish they needed for a year.

As we check the lineup WA videog­ra­pher Tom Jen­nings points and ges­tic­u­lates ex­cit­edly as an empty wave al­most con­nects all the way from the out­side sec­tion at Cen­tres through to the main Tomb­stones sec­tion of the reef. "Ant­man, Camel and Dean Mor­ri­son have all had one that goes all the way through," sug­gests Tom as though re­fer­ring to the holy grail of surf­ing at Gnar­aloo. While we watch, big Dawbs crams his size­able frame into a drainer at the Cen­ters sec­tion of the reef and the morn­ing crew cheer the good-na­tured gi­ant all the way. At Gnar­alooo you've always got a shot at be­ing a carpark hero.

For Ja­cob and Shaun it's an­other day of re­lent­less tube hunt­ing.The green room rather than the class­room is the fo­cus as they serve their ap­pren­tice­ship at one of he world's most chal­leng­ing train­ing grounds. Hope­fully one day they will be rep­re­sent­ing Aus­tralia at waves like Pipe and Chopes mak­ing use of ev­ery­thing they learned from the buckle-faced bar­rels of Gnar­aloo. Al­though to­day is glo­ri­ous Shaun is adamant that mak­ing it as a pro in­volves much more than surf­ing per­fect waves. "You've def­i­nitely gotta love it… Be will­ing to surf crap. You gotta surf that crap and push through it. And it's not just win­ning heats. It's how you free surf. Look at John John – he won a cou­ple of heats and re­leases some of the best clips in the world." Sounds easy enough in the­ory but the ex­e­cu­tion is a lit­tle trick­ier.

Dur­ing the sec­ond ses­sion Shaun and Ja­cob are joined in the lineup by a pair of mas­sive manta rays that flap their fins grace­fully like birds of the sea. At one point the rays are so close to the pack they lit­er­ally swim over a cou­ple of surfers, re­mind­ing us all that we were just pedes­tri­ans in a ma­rine high­way. Dawbs in his in­fi­nite wis­dom has a the­ory on why the two rays are hang­ing around. "They must be ei­ther eat­ing or root­ing I reckon," he prof­fers sagely between sets.

It's near-dark by the time the two grom­mets pad­dle in – will­ing slaves to Gnar­aloo's sim­ple rou­tine of eat, sleep, surf, re­peat. As they reach the shore the western sun is like a vain­glo­ri­ous ac­tor pro­long­ing his death scene for as long as he can – bleed­ing molten red over the dusk sky. If the desert night were not such a pretty mur­derer you'd never for­give her for killing off such an in­cred­i­ble day.


Down at Dino Adrian's car­a­van the scent of Emu Bit­ters and last night's cooked mack­erel still lingers as the morn­ing sun slowly thaws the desert chill. Af­ter two straight days of big bar­rels and good fish­ing there had been cause for camp­fire cel­e­bra­tion with a crew that in­cluded Jar­rah Tut­ton, Jay Davies, and Joel Ash­p­land.

How­ever, the first seedy draw of breath and bleary eyed glance at the ocean re­veals the swell has hung in and the wind is just right for a cer­tain right-han­der around the cor­ner. Al­though his heart may be set on a day of fish­ing, Dino knows it would be wrong not to check the spot. At a sen­si­ble hour that co­in­cides with the op­ti­mal tide, Dino and his crew take the tyre-eat­ing trail round the cor­ner, by­pass­ing a few graz­ing roos and the fear­some look­ing herd of wild goats that roam the desert flats.

By the time our own wave-weary crew makes its way to the same fa­bled spot, Dino is parked atop the spec­tac­u­lar look­out, um­ming and ah­hing about whether or not to pad­dle out. The wave breaks some 50 me­tres be­low, at the base of a cliff. The shore­line – if you could call it that – is dis­tin­guished by an­gu­lar boul­ders the size of houses, piled high on top of one an­other. The wave is an an­tipodean ver­sion of Back­door Pipe, break­ing barely a leg rope's length be­yond a bar­na­cleen­crusted slab of reef. Fingers of rock jut into the lineup and gain­ing ac­cess in­volves a tap dance across the frag­mented shelf that is full of holes and pit­falls. But ahhh the bar­rels on of­fer when you make it to the other side. Kelly once made the wave fa­mous and Parko and Andy shared an epic ses­sion here many moons ago, but to­day it's just the boys who live in W.A.

"We've been here an hour and only re­ally seen a cou­ple," sug­gests Dino in his typ­i­cally un­der­stated drawl. He looks ragged with his patchy beard and un­kempt hair. It's not the man­u­fac­tured look of di­shevel­ment you might ex­pect from a hip­ster – just a plain grungi­ness that says, "I'm here to surf and fish and I don't give a damn what I look like". Fi­nally Dino de­cides it's worth a go out and nim­bly descends the goat track that leads to the base of the cliff.

Af­ter ne­go­ti­at­ing the rocks Dino finds him­self alone in a lineup lo­cated at the bot­tom of a cliff, in the mid­dle of nowhere and the cor­re­spond­ing sense of vul­ner­a­bil­ity adds to the drama. From up on high it's dif­fi­cult to gauge the size of the swell but the first set that rolls through is at least eight feet. As it pyra­mids Dino swings with­out hes­i­ta­tion, scratches in and barely makes it un­der the lip, where for a few won­der­ful seconds he stands bolt up­right in a gleam­ing bar­rel like some kind of board-mounted tro­phy.

An­ni­hi­la­tion seems in­evitable as the wave twists from per­fect cham­ber to vi­o­lent close­out, but Dino plans his exit ex­pertly and es­capes as the de­scend­ing lip erupts at his an­kles. He's in front of a crowd that barely makes dou­ble fig­ures but from up on the cliffs it feels like the ul­ti­mate big sta­dium per­for­mance and ev­ery­one goes ab­so­lutely mad when he emerges from the cloud of ex­plod­ing foam. In­spired by Dino, Jar­rah and Joel fol­low quickly be­hind and so be­gins the desert shoot out – Jar­rah stylishly paint­ing the roof with a dragged hand, Shaun push­ing him­self to go deeper with each ride.


When Dino snaps a legrope Shaun's Dad, Matt, is wait­ing at the base of the cliff with a back up. Matt makes Dino's boards and is rel­ish­ing the op­por­tu­nity to see equip­ment he made pushed to the ab­so­lute limit. Af­ter study­ing the lineup from ev­ery an­gle Matt hints that per­haps Ja­cob and Shaun should give it a shot. He's not at all pushy, rather it's the gen­tly guid­ing voice of a wise fa­ther who knows much more can be achieved by quiet sug­ges­tion than self-serv­ing in­sis­tence.

Shaun and Ja­cob re­spond to the chal­lenge and take up a po­si­tion in the lineup. It's a thresh­old mo­ment – al­though both are highly com­pe­tent surfers it's a ses­sion that will test both their temer­ity and skill. As they make their way out Dawbs ap­pears at the edge of the cliff and shouts, "Come on Chippo show us what you got". To the Mar­garet River com­mu­nity who has closely fol­lowed his ca­reer, Ja­cob is known sim­ply as Chippo or Chip­per.

With the waves still fir­ing the older trio are ini­tially re­luc­tant to re­lin­quish sets to the grom­mets who are equally aus­pi­cious about lay­ing claim to a big­ger wave. How­ever, both score de­cent rides, this time Shaun util­is­ing his fore­hand to pull in a lit­tle deeper than his rail-grab­bing spar­ring part­ner. Even­tu­ally Shaun and Ja­cob are the only two in the lineup and such is their des­per­a­tion to score a bomb in front of the cam­eras and the crowd that they drop in on one an­other. Ja­cob will later claim it was his turn and Shaun will ar­gue he

had the in­side. With the wind shift­ing and the in­com­ing tide mov­ing the wave per­ilously close to the shelf, the two young surfers pad­dle in, both still fum­ing about the desert in­ter­fer­ence. A few min­utes of stonewalling are fol­lowed by a lit­tle ac­cu­sa­tive ban­ter but ev­ery­one is too buzzed from the ses­sion to let it be­come an is­sue. The in­ci­dent only serves to re­flect how much th­ese two young waves­lid­ers from West Aus­tralia both want to lay claim to their place in surf­ing.

By the time we ar­rive back at camp Ja­cob and Shaun are on good terms again, per­haps aware that their friend­ship will be valu­able in a shared com­pet­i­tive future where there are many other foes to take on and sit­u­a­tions to con­front.

With an­other swell on the charts Matt and Shaun are stay­ing on, fa­ther and son de­ter­mined to gorge on the Gnar­aloo bar­rels and con­tent with the sim­plic­ity of car­a­van liv­ing. It's dif­fi­cult not to be jeal­ous of their free­dom as I con­tem­plate a re­turn to east coast traf­fic and crowded beach break line­ups. Ja­cob mean­while has an Amer­i­canBeauty as­sign­ment and his high school T.E.E. to oc­cupy him. In a few days he's rid­den deep in­side count­less glow­ing bar­rels, watched the sun con­duct desert light shows and the night sky cast its spell, seen di­a­mond-backed goan­nas scut­tle and manta rays glide. What­ever Amer­i­canBeauty was about it seems noth­ing on the Aus­tralian ver­sion. An­other 14 hours of driv­ing lay ahead. For­tu­nately there are plenty of waves to re­flect on and Rus­sell knows how to spin a good yarn. Just who earned the ti­tle of Cap­tain Bar­rel on this trip is de­bat­able, but ev­ery­one sure as hell had a good crack at the helm.

To see footage of the crazy tubes from this trip, go to and search for Com­fort Caves.


Ja­cob Will­cox per­fom­ing at the Gnar­aloo sta­dium. ||


Josh Ah­s­p­land back­ing him­self hands free on a yawn­ing Tomb­stones pit. ||

MAIN Dino Adrian mid­dling a mon­u­men­tal right.|| ORD IN­SET Dino's desert dress code.|| ORD


MAIN: Jar­rah Tut­ton test­ing out his wing­span in a dreamy tun­nel.||

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